- Merck is seeking approval for Keytruda (pembrolizumab) for treatment of advanced non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). Furthermore, in a head-to-head trial against Bristol-Myers Squibb's Yervoy, Keytruda was shown to be more effective in improving melanoma patients' survival odds.
- Keytruda is a PD-1 inhibitor, which is a new class of cancer drugs which help the body mount an immune defense against the Programmed Death receptor (PD-1) or a related receptor, PD-L1.
- Bristol-Myers Squibb makes another PD-1 inhibitor, Opdivo (nivolumab), which also has an advanced melanoma indication, as well as an indication for squamous NSCLC. The company is now going after a non-squamous NSCLC indication based on recent positive data.
In Merck's phase 1 study of 495 patients with advanced NSCLC, 45% of subjects with high PD-L1 levels (levels above 50%) responded to Keytruda, compared with 16.5% of subjects with PD-L1 levels between 1% and 49%.
Although there is a heated competition between Merck and BMS to gain indications for various types of lung cancer, in addition to the melanoma indications that both companies have, the reality is that 160,000 people in the U.S. die of lung cancer each year. More treatment options are a good thing—but the marketing battle between these two companies won't fizzle anytime soon.
Analysts are largely betting on Opdivo to dominate this space as it keeps racking up impressive trial data (and considering its first-to-market advantage in several indications). In fact, in what's sure to put a damper on Keytruda's good melanoma news, a trial testing a combination of BMS' Yervoy and Opdivo showed major efficacy improvements in just-released trial data.